Responding to Students in Distress
Guidelines for Faculty and Staff
The Role of Counseling Services
Counseling Services at Lake Land College centers around academic counseling. Counselors discuss with students issues that are affecting their academic progress and utilize student development theory to assist students in successfully navigating the college experience. Academic counseling focuses on educational and career planning and addressing academic difficulties due to under preparedness, deficient study skills, stress experienced by mentally healthy individuals and other factors. The counseling website provides additional information regarding the specific services offered by Lake Land College’s counseling staff.
Although the focus in Counseling Services is to provide academic counseling for students, it is recognized that college students do not only experience academic issues and difficulties. Many students are dealing with personal and sometimes even mental health issues. All of the counselors on staff at Lake Land College have a master’s degree in counseling and are trained to assess, address and appropriately refer students who are experiencing these types of issues.
Identifying the Distressed Student
Over the course of their career at Lake Land College, it is likely that staff will come into contact with a student they find challenging. It is important to understand the difference between a student having a bad day and a student who may need mental health treatment or intervention. All students go through a time of adjustment when they begin college. It is normal for students to feel anxious and sad to some degree within the first three months of beginning college, as they try to figure out how and where they fit. Concern should come when the distress to the student is in excess of what would be expected or if there is significant impairment in social, educational or occupational functioning. Whether a student is having difficulty with the transition to college, depression or anxiety, help is available. Staff are not expected to diagnose a student situation, but are asked to recognize when a student is in trouble and to connect them to Counseling Services. Counselors can then assess the situation and assist the student.
Adjustment Disorder - Stressors that can cause Adjustment Disorder include divorce, loss of employment, becoming a parent, retirement, death of a friend or family member, illness or injury. If a student has recently experienced one or more of these stressors, along with the stress of beginning college, their adjustment may be more difficult.
Anxiety - Many students suffer from anxiety. Some never make it to the classroom because of that anxiety. In the classroom, anxiety might look like: excessive worry, feeling “on edge”, panic attacks, avoiding speeches or group projects, leaving class early, fear of failure or criticism.
Depression - Periods of sadness are a normal part of the human experience; however, diagnosable depression is persistent and causes significant distress. If it appears that a student might be depressed, it is important to not assume that someone else in the student’s life will intervene. One of the characteristics of depression is isolation. An instructor may spend more time with a student than anyone else all day. There are ways that depression manifests itself in the classroom. For example, the instructor might notice: sadness, inability to concentrate, missed classes, decreased motivation, isolation, decrease in personal hygiene, and a change from previous functioning.
Tips for Responding to Students in Distress
If a staff member suspects that a student is suffering from depression or anxiety, they should express their concern to the student and refer them to Counseling Services. Sometimes it is hard to know how to approach the student or what to say to a student who appears to be in distress.
- If appropriate, invite the student to an office or a private place to talk rather than addressing the issue in a public place or in the classroom.
- Gain an understanding of why the student is upset. This will help determine if the student is having a bad day or if they need intervention. Start the conversation by saying “If you want to tell me what is upsetting you, I’m here to listen” or a similar conversation starter.
- Use active listening and repeat back to the student what they just said. Depending on the situation, staff may respond by saying “You sound very upset, what can I do to help?” or “You sound very upset, is it OK if I call a Counselor over to talk with you?”
- If the student’s issue is one the staff member does not feel qualified or comfortable discussing, the staff member should contact Counseling Services. One question to consider is “Is the student’s response in excess of their stressor?” If so, intervention is warranted. Also, when it comes to helping students who are upset, in crisis or simply having a bad day, it is important for staff to evaluate their own comfort level. If staff feel uncomfortable or that they are entering territory they are not qualified to handle, contact Counseling Services.
The following examples demonstrate techniques for responding to a student in distress.
Kari is obviously upset and tearful during class and the instructor asks her to stay after.
Instructor: I noticed you seem very upset. Are you OK? Would you like to talk about it?
Student: My grandmother passed away last week and I am having a really hard time. I really miss her and can’t seem to concentrate on anything.
Instructor: I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. You must really miss her.
This student is having a normal response to the death of a loved one. The loss is still recent, only a week ago. Loss of concentration and tearfulness are a natural part of the grieving process. If the same scenario occurred and the loss of loved one occurred ten months ago, the staff member might consider referring the student to Counseling Services. Although everyone’s grieving period is different, if the student is still unable to concentrate and is having trouble functioning after ten months, she may need some professional help moving through the stages of grief.
Bill started out the semester strong, but recently began missing class and not turning in work. The instructor asks him to stay after class to discuss his progress in the class.
Instructor: I noticed that you started out the semester very well, but lately you’ve been missing class and assignments. I’m concerned about your grade and success in this class.
Student: I’m feeling overwhelmed. I am in four classes and I work nights. I’m trying to balance that with my family. I just can’t seem to do anything right.
Instructor: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now, between work, school and your family. I think it would be good for you to talk with Counseling Services about how you can begin to relieve some of this stress.
If the student meets with a counselor, they can discuss time management, tutoring, withdrawing from a class or two and the time commitment it takes to be successful in class. Along with the academic issues the counselor and student can also discuss the student’s personal struggles. Maybe they are having problems in their relationship or are experiencing symptoms of depression that warrant a referral to a local community agency.
The common denominator in these scenarios:
- If a student appears to be struggling, or there is a change from their previous functioning, the staff member should express their concern to the student. It is important to not assume someone else in the student’s life will intervene.
- It is important to use Active Listening. This means clarifying and restating what a person just said. This assures the student that that staff member is listening and that he/she cares.
- Staff should assess their own comfort level. Everyone is different. Some instructors might feel comfortable talking for an hour with a student who recently lost a loved one. Others panic at the sight of tears and do not know what to do to help. Staff are encouraged to recognize their own boundaries and refer to Counseling Services when necessary.
- Counseling Services specializes in helping mentally healthy students through college related stress. They also provide assessment and referral for personal or mental health problems.
Responding to a "Clingy" Student
Instructors sometimes encounter a student who has become very comfortable with them, the “clingy” student. Some students bond very quickly, especially with an instructor who has helped them through some sort of stressor. Sometimes instructors must set boundaries with students who do not understand the instructor-student roles. It is not appropriate for a student’s instructor to act as the student’s “counselor.” This puts the instructor in an awkward situation, especially when they are giving a grade at the end of the semester. To address the situation, it is important for the instructor to be clear and firm. An instructor might say: “Did you have the opportunity to stop by Counseling Services to discuss these issues? I really think it would be helpful. Let’s call over and see if we can make you an appointment”; or “As your instructor, it is important that we focus on your academics and progress in my class. However, we do have an office on campus that might be a great resource for you.”
Counseling Services Contact Information
Staff who observe a student who needs assistance should encourage them to meet with a counselor in Counseling Services. Regardless of the type of stress the student is experiencing, Counseling Services can help.
Staff may accompany the student to Counseling Services or assist them in telephoning to schedule an appointment. If the staff member believes that the student needs immediate assistance from a counselor, they may contact Counseling Services and describe the situation so that appropriate intervention may be arranged.
- In person: Student Services Wing of the Student Services Building
- By phone: 234-5232 or individual counselor extensions
- By email: firstname.lastname@example.org or individual counselor email